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New York JETS
Tim Crothers
August 30, 1999
Bill Parcells will tackle the task of taking a third franchise to the Super Bowl, an unprecedented feat, but hell have to do it with a revamped offensive line
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August 30, 1999

New York Jets

Bill Parcells will tackle the task of taking a third franchise to the Super Bowl, an unprecedented feat, but hell have to do it with a revamped offensive line

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SUDDEN IMPECT

Few quarterbacks in NFL history have been as effective in their first year with a team as Vinny Testaverde was with the Jets last season. Testaverde had a 12-1 record in 13 starts, the best record for a starting quarterback in his first year with a team in the past 26 years (minimum: eight starts) and the fourth-best since the NFL-AFL common draft was instituted, in 1967.

Season

Quarterback

Team

How acquired

W-L

Pct.

1972

Earl Morrall

Dolphins

Waivers from Colts

9-0

1.000

1968

Earl Morrall

Colts

Trade from Giants

13-1

.929

1967

Daryle Lamonica

Raiders

Trade from Bills

13-1

.929

1998

Vinny Testaverde

Jets

Waivers from Ravens

12-1

.923

As the Jets begin the '99 season, the most notable off-season changing of the guard was the changing of the guards. When was the last time a team started training camp as one of the favorites to reach the Super Bowl yet had absolutely no clue who would play either guard spot? In one of the more daring gambles this off-season, coach Bill Parcells released last year's starting left guard, Todd Burger, whom Parcells considered soft, and bid farewell to right guard Matt O'Dwyer, a serviceable player who left as a free agent. Without Burger's and O'Dwyer's combined 10 years of pro experience, Parcells found himself opening camp with five guard candidates who had played a combined total of zero NFL games.

Has Parcells let his guard down? After all, the coach broke up a line that he estimates had played together for 98% of the Jets' plays last year and helped New York out-score every team in the conference except the Super Bowl champion Broncos. Still, Parcells was not satisfied with the size of the holes opened for tailback Curtis Martin, who got tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage 95 times.

So Parcells used three of his eight '99 draft choices on guards, including his first two picks, in the second and third rounds, and a sixth-rounder. Staring at three rookies and two glorified scout-teamers, Parcells then hired one of his best former guards, William Roberts, as an unpaid intern to tutor the young linemen. Parcells believes he has found a Roberts clone in rookie Randy Thomas out of Mississippi State, whose only previous claim to fame was getting kicked out of an all-you-can-eat buffet at a Holiday Inn near Starkville after ingesting 18 pieces of chicken. A former high school basketball player, the 6'4" 301-pounder is extremely mobile for his size, which allows him to pull and block effectively in the open field, skills particularly important in a Jets offense that relies heavily on traps, sweeps and screen passes.

Parcells proved last season that he isn't afraid to play a rookie lineman; he drafted tackle Jason Fabini in the fourth round and started him in all 16 games. In fact, Parcells had hoped his other '99 guard spot might also be filled by a rookie: third-round pick David Loverne, a player so tough that he refused to sit out last January's East-West Shrine game despite a torn pectoral muscle. But Loverne is still too erratic and high-strung to win Parcells's trust just yet. So on Aug. 9 the coach met backup tackle Kerry Jenkins as he walked off the practice field and said, "Know all of the guard plays when you come out tomorrow" The 6'5", 305-pound Jenkins, whom the Jets signed off Chicago's practice squad in '97 and who played exclusively on special teams last season, had never played a game at guard in his entire football career and had not previously been mentioned as a candidate for the job. "It all starts on the offensive line," Jenkins says. "So I believe that Randy and I can't have any lulls if this team is going to reach its goals."

There is no unit on the field in which chemistry and teamwork are more critical than the offensive line, and how quickly the Jets' new front gels could affect the team's play-calling. "Rome wasn't built in a day," Roberts says. "I'm just trying to get these guys to understand the sense of urgency."

Parcells has tried to support his rebuilt front wall by signing free-agent tight end Eric Green, along with introducing the new F-back formation that will often employ fullback Keith Byars or Richie Anderson as another tight end in motion to help with run blocking. (There is concern about the availability of left tackle Jumbo Elliott, who will go to trial the day after the season opener on a misdemeanor assault charge stemming from a July 10 barroom altercation. If he's found guilty, Elliott could face a league suspension.)

Other than the two new guards, the addition of Green, safety Steve Atwater and the return of oft-injured linebacker Marvin Jones, the Jets are essentially the same team that earned its first division title since '69 and reached the AFC Championship Game. They will again rely on the magic of Vinny Testaverde and the big-play skills of Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet, who formed the NFL's best pass-catching duo with 158 receptions in '98. There is a strong sense around the Jets' camp that this could be the final season on the sideline for Parcells, who is trying to accomplish the unprecedented feat of leading his third franchise to a Super Bowl. Ever the motivator, this capricious coach issued T-shirts to his coaches and players during training camp with a simple message printed on the back: START OVER.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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